It seems as though the Israelis have missed yet another opportunity to acknowledge the power imbalance that exists between oppressor and oppressed. And the opportunities keep coming. Eleanor Kilroy’s article in Mondoweiss, "Israel’s National Theater to Bring ‘Merchant’ to World Shakespeare Fest in May," points out the claim by Israel’s national theatre to be "apolitical" in its effort to bring art and culture to West Bank settlements, and Kilroy outlines how this decision to "promote peaceful co-existence" actually ignores and thus reinforces “the reality of colonial power relations.” In her exploration of the politics of the “apolitical,” she also discusses Nicholas Rowe’s book, Raising Dust: A Cultural History of Dance in Palestine, in which he exposes the political implications of the 1994 performance of Romeo and Juliet in Jerusalem.
Merchant is now getting it from both sides. Right wing Jewish groups are also protesting the performance of Merchant in London because they feel that the play is too anti-Semitic. Kilroy’s article raises an important issue. To what degree can art really be apolitical and to what degree does this attempt to be apolitical simply reinforce the dominant narrative?
I was living in Jerusalem in 1992 studying for my Master’s degree in Literature when I first read The Merchant of Venice in my Shakespeare graduate seminar. My professor told us that it was hard for Israelis to reconcile the anti-Semitism in the play and to see the play performed in Israel. I learned that the play had been performed in Palestine in 1936, and that, according to Avraham Oz, the production could not evade politics at that time, either. This first production of the play, Oz said, "occurred at an heroic moment, where national pathos was a standard theme." It seems that Israel gets to pick and choose when cultural events are deemed "political," and pick and choose when it serves to gain sympathy for itself.
Poster for a 1994 Israeli-Palestinian joint production of
Romeo and Juliet.
Though I was too young to comprehend the political implications of a Shakespeare play being performed in Israel, I was understandably excited when, two years after the Shakespeare graduate seminar, in 1994, I saw the poster for Romeo and Juliet being performed at a theatre a ten-minute walk from my apartment and I anxiously bought two tickets.
I was also dating a Palestinian-Canadian at the time, so when I went to the box office to purchase the two tickets, I was already fantasizing how excited Khalil would be when I would surprise him. Although I wasn’t sure how he would react to my asking him to see the play with me, I was confident that he would understand the metaphor of our being "star-crossed lovers," given the complexities of our dating situation.
Born in Canada, Khalil came to Jerusalem to live with some of his family for a while after graduating from college. Torn by being both Canadian and Palestinian, he also felt conflicted in Jerusalem, and spent time in both East and West Jerusalem.
I met Khalil my second year of graduate school at a bar in West Jerusalem where lots of internationals hung out. We met on a Monday night, which was dart night. One of the first things I noticed when we met was the necklace he wore, a gold state of Palestine. It was the first time I had seen the map of what I was taught was Israel, with city names in Arabic. I remember looking at his necklace, and then clutching my own, a modern gold chai, the legs bowed at the top and then narrowed. For Khalil, dart night came to be a respite from living with his family under occupation. For me, Monday night dart night was a break from my evening graduate seminars at Hebrew University.
I found out that the play was going to be a joint production with Israelis and Palestinians and that Juliet and the Capulets would be the Israelis and that Romeo and the Montagues would be the Palestinians. English would be projected on a screen above the stage. When I surprised Khalil with the tickets, he kind of shrugged and agreed to go. I assumed his lack of enthusiasm came more from his business background and general disinterest in the theatre than from his (correct) assumption that the Capulets and Montagues (Israelis and Palestinians) would be portrayed equally, "both alike in dignity," as the prologue tells us, thus perpetuating the narrative that ignores both the power imbalance and the institutional colonization and appropriation of indigenous Palestinian land and culture.
Months before we would go to the play together, we would spend evenings going back and forth between East and West Jerusalem, driving to Ramallah, road trips to Eilat, his pointing out where olive trees used to be, his pride in having knowledge about his homeland and his desire to share this with an American Jew, and both of us, really, using this Middle Eastern temporary home as a playground, a getaway respite from our lives in the U.S and Canada. Often our evenings would be spent driving through Ramallah, on hot summer nights, smoking cigarettes, the music too loud to talk. A new radio station (Israeli owned) had just emerged, playing English, Arabic, and Hebrew music. I thought we had a sense of each other’s culture as we ashed our cigarettes out the window onto the landscape that we both loved.
A couple months before we saw the play, Khalil was put in jail for being part of a group unsealing Palestinian homes sealed by Israeli soldiers. A week later he was released. He took a taxi from the jail to my apartment, took a shower, lay on the bed, and kissed me. He told me that his stint in jail was a kind of rite of passage for him, a Palestinian born in Canada. He said that he now had "legitimacy" in the Palestinian community because he was now resisting the occupation. He got on top of me, then, this man who was so torn between his Western and Eastern selves. As he kissed me, his gold necklace, the shape of Palestine, pointed into my neck as we moved our bodies together in the night, his first night out of jail, the point going in between my bowed and swelled chai.
Art and cultural artifacts—our necklaces bought in their respective jewelry stores—the political implications of these necklaces were so much larger than our year-long relationship. Though we both wore them with pride, it was a bravado that comes with youth. We needed them to help forge our own identities. I had no understanding of systemic institutional and structural oppression outside of having a sense of the history of Jewish persecution. My youth, and my position as part of the dominant culture in Israel—the Jewish Zionist narrative I was taught in the U.S. was one of victimhood (at times justified)—allowed me to see Khalil as a co-equal in my life, which is why I was so excited to take him to see the play. But my vision of him—my sincere sense of him—was skewed by my position in the power structure. I looked up to him, admired him, loved him. I saw Khalil as an equal in the same way a white person will tell a black person that they do not see color. The Jewish Zionist narrative encouraged me to co-opt this Palestinian narrative as a form of play. I molded my relationship with Khalil to fit into my narrative—my homeland told me to—and so with this, I missed the point entirely.
I have often wondered why, after gaining the legitimacy among the Palestinian community, Khalil chose to come to a Jew’s home the night he got out of jail. He might have said it was as simple as knowing the chance for sex would be high, but I now know that there were complexities in that night wrapped up, interweaving and intersecting, in youth and sweat, and that both of our identities, Khalil’s and mine, were as tangled and unraveled as the necklaces we both wore.
In these ten years I have been teaching Romeo and Juliet to freshmen, I always struggle with the prologue’s insistence that the Capulets and Montagues are "both alike in dignity." And each year, I tell my students that there are some Shakespeare scholars who strongly believe that, while both families are upper class, the Capulets are, in fact, wealthier. And I tell them that it is always important to look at situations in terms of who has the power and the privilege and what the impact is. This might explain a few things in the play: Juliet’s awareness that her family would never accept Romeo, Romeo’s obsession with gold, and the insistence, at the end, of Romeo’s parents to cast Juliet in gold—their feeble attempt to one-up Juliet’s parents’ gesture of a handshake to make the peace, and to freeze her, a woman, into a statue. The true tragedy of the play, I hope my students realize, is not just that the teenagers commit suicide, but that by the end of the play, neither family has learned a thing.
The evening that Khalil and I went to the play would be our last. After the play, he took me home and said, "I’m going back to Canada for a while, and when I come back here, I think we should just be friends." And though I was hurt and confused, looking back, I was mostly disappointed that our story wasn’t such a story after all. It would take me years to unpack how ultimately, the loss of Khalil equaled the loss of my own political innocence, and that the privilege of looking at art "for art’s sake" was a privilege perpetuated by people who had access to such art on a regular basis.
I had thought that I could juxtapose our narratives, Khalil’s and mine, and that somehow, in doing so, gain a legitimacy, an access to each other’s world. But the truth was that Khalil already had access into my world and had already been taught the Jewish Zionist narrative.
I don’t want my students to miss the chance to see Shakespeare through cultural conflicts that include their own eras. At the age of 24, I thought that the performance would make Shakespeare applicable to the modern day situation among Israelis and Palestinians. Maybe at age 14—the age Juliet is two weeks from in the play—my students will start to recognize the dangers of juxtaposition, and examine how the forces that cause one narrative to be more dominant than another is so much larger than the players on a stage.
The truth is that while some people walk into a room and own it, others enter what is for them a negotiated space. If Romeo was truly to be a Palestinian in the Jerusalem performance (and certainly Shakespeare gives us the freedom to play with such roles), then the families couldn’t have been "both alike in dignity," and the young lovers having been "star-crossed" would have explored the intersections of power, privilege, class, race, sexuality, access, and politics that hover heavily over everything in this life.